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A Story from the Farm with Sarah Lovas

Sarah Lovas is a part of North Dakota’s very farming fabric. The Lovas family has been farming the Red River Valley for more than 93 years. As a third of the wheel that composes the Lovas Farms team, Sarah brings with her a bachelor’s degree in agricultural systems management from North Dakota State University and over 18 years of experience in the agronomist field.

Because of the breadth of her experience in the industry, Sarah is armed with a unique viewpoint that is worthy of a story from the farm.

The Story

“I’m going to talk about the spring of 2020 and I’m actually going to talk about it from an agronomist standpoint, which I know sounds kind of different. But one of the things that we overlook sometimes is the human side of some of the big decisions that farmers have to make all the time and how big and impactful those decisions are. This is especially true when margins are really tight or when it’s a tough year. Both of those things were definitely true in the spring of 2020. I think in my agronomy career, the spring of 2020 was one of the toughest springs that I could possibly imagine.

If you think back to the spring of 2020, the commodity prices were pretty low. So, every time that we would try to pencil something out on a spreadsheet, it was really hard to make crops look profitable. And this was coming after a couple of years of downturn in the economy. It was really tough to try to figure out how to make anything work economically. On top of that, it had been an incredibly wet year up here. And when we freeze up with wet soils, as we did in 2019, that wet soil is still there when it thaws out in the spring. This created a very difficult planting situation.

So, everybody has got these wet saturated fields that they just can’t make a seedbed out of. There was no fall work done in the fall of 2019 because they were lucky if they got the crop out. As a matter of fact, if you remember fall 2019, most of the sugar beets did not get harvested that fall. That’s like a first-ever historical situation for that particular crop. Also, there was still actually lots of corn in the field in the spring of 2020 that had not been harvested from 2019. So, when we went into the situation, again, economically nothing was penciled on the spreadsheet and the planting conditions were incredibly difficult.

I can remember having so many conversations with farmers that spring, talking through the scenarios with them, trying to take the emotion out of it. Every farmer had their backs up against the wall with how their farms could go backward from any wrong decisions made. It was huge. You sit there on the phone with these guys and you talk through each field-byfield situation about how they can, how they can make good decisions. You talk through what the field looks like and what crops you think you can get planted in there, how we think we should manage that and go through all the logistics of what can work. I think there were some farmers I was working with that I gave five different fertilizer recommendations for five different crops for the same fields because they changed their minds that much based on what could get planted in that field and what should get planted in that field and what made the most economic sense to get planted in that field. Normally, every year, a farmer starts out with a crop rotation and they follow it pretty closely. I might have one or two fields that get changed around, but to have five different cropping ideas for the same field within a two-week period—that’s, that’s a lot of changing. And, as I said, you try to take the emotion out of things, but, eventually, the emotional side comes out.

In the agronomy industry, sometimes we joke about being therapists, but that really is true. Sometimes we just have to sit there and listen to what that farmer is going through and what he’s thinking about and how he’s making decisions. And, as agronomists, we’re really quite confidential. There’s nothing that says that we have to be confidential about what we know about different farmers, it’s just a respect thing that we have that exists.

We get to know them and their farms so well—we scout that field over and over and over again. I was in those fields every week that year and I got to see how things changed. I got to see how things grew and developed and how every farmer made and managed decisions. Every farmer is completely different from the next one. It’s our job, as agronomists to understand those fields really well and how the farmer manages their farm. It’s a pretty special thing. It really is. They trust you to help them make really good decisions. I personally feel every single victory that we have out there and every single thing that maybe doesn’t turn out quite the way we want it to. I feel like I end up carrying that as an agronomist as much as the next guy does.

I hope that everybody that buys food at the grocery store, can gain a little bit of an appreciation for the decisions that have to get made in those scenarios. That was one of the most challenging springs that I ever went through. It was really stressful. But now that we’re finally through it, I actually think about how special it was to be a part of that situation, working with those farmers in that scenario, and having the opportunity to hopefully help them through what was really a tough time.

In addition to my perspective on the spring of 2020 as an agronomist, I’d also like to say that all of the talk about rural mental health is actually a really big deal. You’ve got these farmers that have got all this pressure on their shoulders, and they’re trying to make really good decisions. I think it’s important for farmers to feel like it’s okay to talk to someone about what’s going on. It’s okay to have conversations with someone and be human about what’s going on. Because if you think about every decision that a farmer is making, I don’t think the world truly understands what it’s like to be in those shoes, making those really big decisions that are millions of dollars worth of decisions in this day and age. I think that deserves respect. If you ever worry about your neighbor, I hope that you reach out to your neighbor and make sure that they’re okay.

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